Caturday with Kat Cunning

Savanna Ruedy
India Hendrikse

Unapologetically extroverted, politically charged and master of a multi-hyphen portfolio, 27-year-old Kat Cunning has shunned the dreary cookie cutter celeb mould in favour of a new wave of famous: the art-driven change-makers. A singer, actor, queer activist, dancer and fashion muse, Oregon-born, New York-based Kat has risen to fame through HBO and Netflix-stardom. Alongside their recurring role in HBO’s The Deuce, appearing beside James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kat has starred in the Netflix series Trinkets. On the back of the release of their sultry new indie pop single Broken Heart, Kat dished on their song-writing process, coping mechanisms during Covid-19 quarantine, how the heck to get over heartache, and what they’ll wear to the clubs when this mess is all over.

IH: Your new single, “Broken Heart” is about struggles as an all-encompassing human experience. Has the song and its lyrics taken on new meaning in the wake of the current crisis?
KC: The song is mostly about the light on the other side of shame and insecurity, and acknowledging that we all battle with those emotions. You would think that quarantine would be a break from the external pressures to perform and put a face on for the world, but I think the loneliness of quarantine can also be really dangerous in a way. Those voices of shame and those experiences of heartbreak have the time to close in around people who are struggling with the voices in their head, and a lot of people are experiencing loss due to the virus. I definitely struggle with shame and insecurity and it is hard not to have my community around me to dance and talk and laugh and work! But, releasing this song was a good reminder, even to myself, that shame is a garbage monster and all you can do is your best. If you only have 50% of yourself to call upon on any given day, use 100% of that 50 to celebrate your life. Have a dance in the mirror, throw on some lingerie, sext your apocolyptic pen pal unto the wee morning hours and remind yourself you’re strong. 
IH: What would your words of advice be to someone who has recently had their heart broken?
KC: I don’t know if this is healthy but it’s been my tried and true. Be compassionate toward your heart breaker but GTFO. Make art. Kiss somebody new. 
IH: The song is co-written with John Martin – tell us a little about your artistic relationship and the process of co-writing a track.
KC: I got to write with John Martin and Michel Zitron in Sweden. Their studio was swagged out with pop accents like a tiger print rug, a white couch, a neon flamingo. Shit was vibey. They are two sessy boys clad in leather and fancy sweats and at least two of us in the room were wearing one cross on one ear. From jump, it was a hype room where Michel was bopping and adding to the track while me and John got the chords right on guitar until I disappeared to write this chorus – lyrics and all in like 10 minutes. Verses came really quickly too and I laid it down. The vocal you hear on the track is almost 100% from that day. We wrote a whole ‘nother song, played them loud, jumped around, and then went for beers. Those boys are my bros and I miss them very much. More songs from us to come, for sure. 
IH: As a self-proclaimed extrovert, what have you been doing to stay sane during lockdown?
KC: I have a tiny quaranteam/germ circle of three that keeps me company, and I’m on FaceTime more than I’ve ever been. I have also caved and I use voice text now… who have I become!? Well, it saves the thumbs! I also think it really helps me that I still get ready some days as if I have somewhere to be. Going on camera for weird Insta challenges and stuff actually goes a long way in satisfying my lil performer heart that is otherwise grateful for the break. I would be having a substantially harder time if this were the 1400’s and we had to wait for the carrier pigeons. 
IH: How does identifying as queer shape your music?
KC: I just tell my stories. I think they are mostly universal, and that being queer and nonbinary doesn’t separate me from the world, it just adds my peg to the board of diversity. I hope that my music attracts other queer people who need queer representation, but I get just as excited to see the hetero couple at the back of the room, because marginalised people need allies. I write about love. I write about loss. I write about insecurity and pain. I chose to pursue music because I can write super specific, personal lyrics that might speak, as a poem to a nominal few. But when those words are carried over chords, there is a whole ‘nother language at work. The vibratory frequency of a note tells it’s own story of pain, love, loss, desire. There is an entry point for every kind of person to hear their own story within the song.  I make music to see a room full of people feeling themselves. My story’s just the gateway.  That being said, I think my work encourages queer people to be strong and reminds them that they are not alone. Receiving letters about people finally getting the gumption to come out because of my music always makes me tear up. That’s the icing on the cake of what I do. 
IH: And what has it been like navigating the music and TV industries as a nonbinary artist?
KC: Navigating the industry as nonbinary has been pretty dope! I’m not the type of person to consider an inauthentic route, so this is the one I’m taking and it’s working out great. I get some pushback from the queer community for being “femme presenting” and not masculine enough to be nonbinary.  That’s just ignorance. Gender identity is separate from gender expression. We’ll get over that soon. I would like to see more cis-passing people in queer campaigns and stories. We come in all shapes and sizes. We’re everywhere.
IH: What has been a stand-out ‘pinch me’ moment throughout your career so far?
KC: Watching LP, watching us play from side stage on her tour. I learned so much from her every night. She is a real star who has earned some real stripes in this industry. Also, Maggie Gyllenhaal called me “kind of… amazing.” 
IH: On HBO’s The Deuce, you star alongside James Franco. Was that terrifying? I’d probably lose my voice…
KC: I was a lil nervous but actually, also, very cocky. I have been a huge fan of his improv style, aware of his music and art forays, and felt like.. “Ya. I’m magical like him. I do a million things like him. We’re gonna get along.” I think my baby Pit Bull energy threw him off at first but he appreciated it eventually and we got along great. I’d love to work with him again. Obviously not my gay cup of tea, but for the ladies in the back, James smells great, and he wasn’t a bummer to kiss. 
IH: Tell us a little about your character Sabine on Trinkets and the experience of having your own songs feature in a show that you also act in?
KC: In the words of a close friend who watched the show, “Sabine is like… you…. But a bitch.” Sabine pretty much is me. When I read the script at 12am on Halloween, I drunkenly swore I was gonna get this job. She’s from Portland like me. She’s queer like me. She’s a narcissist like me. And she makes music. BOOM.
Thank God, otherwise known as the writer Kiwi Smith, who saw the tape and agreed. Sabine is powerful and magnetic and a little more selfish than I’d like to think I am. But you can’t blame her for going for what she wants unapologetically and living her life like a damn rock star. 
IH: And finally, describe an outfit (however extravagant) you’d put on to go clubbing when we’re all out of this mess.
KC: Real nostalgic for Studio 54 [the nightclub] right now. Serving you a metallic unitard with corset lacing up the front, a silver newsie hat, a black choker, and overdrawn lip and platform white sneaks for boogie-ing all night long. Glitter on the cheekbones ‘cause fuck it. 

Click to listen to Kat Cunning’s playlist